The Complex Emotions of Anger and the Brain
The past year living through all of the turmoil of Coronavirus, our brains have experienced all kinds of emotions. I have talked about fear, grief, and resilience from toxic stress, but I haven’t talked about anger. There have been many occasions to watch the outcomes of anger throughout this year. As I tuned into the news, I was appalled by what I saw. Anger seemed to come so easily to some people, while others continued to be the voice of reason. I suffered from cognitive dissonance throughout most of the year because I just couldn’t understand some people’s perspectives in light of the evidence of truth. I decided I needed to look at how the brain processes anger. This is what I found.
Our brains are always on alert because their primary purpose is to keep us alive. Our DNA that we inherited from our prehistoric ancestors makes sure that we respond automatically to any threat, perceived or real. When we are on high alert, our brain kicks off a cascade of neurochemicals to get us ready for flight or fight. Adrenalin starts flowing throughout our body well before we are even aware that a threat is present. Because all of this happens below our level of awareness, we don’t even realize that out brain has taken over our response.
Brain function under threat
The cerebral cortex is the thinking part of the brain where logic and judgment reside. It is the executive function center of the brain and is also considered the strategy center.
The emotional center of the brain is the limbic system. It is composed of the hypothalamus, amygdala, the thalamus, and the hippocampus and is located in the lower brain and is considered to be more primitive than the cortex.
When someone is experiencing or expressing anger, the cortex is left out of the loop and all reactions come directly from the limbic system of the brain.
Within the limbic system is a small structure called the amygdala. The amygdala is a storehouse for emotional memories. That makes it highly charged. The fight or flight reaction is initiated in the amygdala. Here is the flow: Data coming in from the surrounding environment passes through the amygdala where the decision is made whether to send the data to the limbic or the cortex area of the brain. Now remember, the cortex is the thinking part of the brain and the limbic system is the emotional center. If the incoming data triggers enough of an emotional charge, the amygdala overrides the cortex and sends the data directly to the limbic system causing the person to react using the lower part of the brain – the emotional part of the brain.
During the overriding event, the amygdala goes into action without much regard for the consequences (this area is not involved in judging, thinking, or evaluating). This reactive incident has come to be known as an amygdala hijacking.
The hormonal rush
As soon as the amygdala is hijacked, a flood of hormones is released that cause physical and emotional alarm. A surge of energy follows, preparing the person for the fight or flight response. The impact of this hormonal rush lasts for several minutes during which time the person is usually out of control and may say or do things he or she may later regret, when the thinking part of the brain reengages.
Having a long-lasting hormone in the body can explain why someone has an initial, powerful angry reaction, then seems to calm, but later has a huge flair up that is disproportionate to the situation because of some small incident occurring while the hormone was active in the bloodstream. On average, it can take 20 minutes for a person who has experienced an angry state of arousal to calm, to move from functioning from the emotional area to the thinking area of the brain. (https://lakesidelink.com)
Anger as a constructive emotion
Philip Gable, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and brain sciences at the University of Delaware, has studied the way that anger influences the brain and behavior. Even though most people report that anger is an unpleasant experience, Gable believes that anger can also be source to pump up positive feelings such as confidence, pride, and determination. It can motivate us to engage in constructive behaviors, and it can focus our attention on a problem. Through history, anger has supported some of humankind’s noblest and altruistic tendencies – including our willingness to fight against injustice.
What makes anger special?
“Anger is the only negative emotion that is part of the brain’s approach system, which means it motivates us to engage in goal-oriented activities,” says Alan Lambert, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Put another way, all other negative emotions push us away from something that we regard as unpleasant or threatening. Anger often does just the opposite; it acts as an encouragement rather than a deterrent.
What encourages anger? “Its most reliable trigger is the perception of injustice, either to others or to oneself,” Lambert says. “We tend to feel angry when someone’s rights are violated, or they’re mistreated, or something happened to them that we think shouldn’t have.”
But just as anger can promote selflessness and cooperation, it can align people and their energies behind causes that are abominable. Injustice, Lambert adds, is often in the eye of the beholder. And once anger bursts to life, it can be both haphazard in its choice of targets and also difficult to rein in as circumstances evolve. “Anger is notoriously hard to inhibit,” he says. “It can gather momentum and snowball.”
Harnessing the good, letting go of the bad
Everyone gets angry. And in some cases, that anger is appropriate. “Anger is healthy and normal, and it can be helpful when it motivates us to do something constructive,” Gable says.
On the other hand, anger can be unruly and uncompromising. It can make us say and do things we regret – often immediately, but sometimes only much later when we have cooled down and have a different perspective of the situation.
Because there are no hard and fast rules that help you determine when anger would be appropriate, it is wise to take better care to monitor your own anger.
According to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, “anybody can become angry – that is easy,” he wrote. “But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power.” Aristotle makes it sound like anger is not worth the effort!
Heid, M. (February 26, 2021). Inside your brain’s complicate relationship with anger. Retrieved from https://elemental.medium.com/inside-your-brains-complicated-relationship-with-anger-c23de841a76b
Lakeside. How Does Anger Happen in the Brain? Retrieved https://lakesidelink.com/blog/lakeside/how-anger-happen-in-the-brain/